There's nothing like a blazing fire to keep you warm and comfortable. But according to the National Fire Protection Association, every year there are more than 20,000 home fires involving fireplaces and chimneys, amounting to hundreds of millions in damages.
If you have a fireplace or heat your home with a wood-burning stove, being safety conscious could save you and your family from injury, loss, and tragedy.
Let's go over what you need to know to safely burn a fire indoors.
The Number One Cause of Fires
The number one cause of fires related to burning wood indoors is a failure to clean chimneys and stove pipes. Removing creosote build-up is especially important.
Creosote is an oil that is produced when wood isn't burned completely, which is a common situation in household fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. That's because they don't reach a high enough temperature to achieve a complete burn. The resulting creosote then rises up in the chimney, where it cools and settles on the surface.
After enough creosote has been deposited inside the chimney or stove pipes, it becomes a major fire risk. The creosote build-up can ignite and produce a high-temperature fire in the chimney.
Every year in the autumn (just before fire-burning season begins), have your chimney or stove pipes inspected and cleaned.
Don't skip this step just because you only use the stove occasionally or only light a fire during holiday gatherings. Even if there isn't enough creosote to cause concern, an inspection might uncover other problems, such as a build-up of soot, a nest built by an animal, or damage to the chimney flue.
(Be sure to also consider these 11 Winter Maintenance Tips for Your Home.)
Chimney Cleaning Logs Are Not Enough
You might have seen chimney cleaning logs for sale at hardware stores. But even if these products boast that they're an easy and convenient way to clean your chimney, they're not adequate replacements for your annual inspection and cleaning.
For one thing, they're not very effective at removing creosote, which, as we saw above, is your number one concern. But they also won't help you discover any other issues that are present. If burning a cleaning log does clear away some of the creosote, it won't let you know that your chimney flue needs to be repaired or replaced.
Lighting the Fire and Burning the Right Materials
Right off the bat, be sure to open your chimney flue.
All flues have a metal cover that should be kept closed when there is no fire in order to prevent warm air from rushing up the chimney. But if you leave it closed when a fire is burning, it won't allow smoke to pass into the chimney. For that reason, you should also make sure the fire is completely out before closing the flue again.
A Few Basic Rules About Lighting and Burning
- Use matches or commercial firelighters (typically handheld butane lighters with long tubes so your hand is not close to the point of ignition). Do not use flammable liquids such as gasoline or kerosene. Newspaper makes good starter.
- If your fireplace has glass doors, keep them open at all times when a fire is burning. This will allow proper airflow and complete combustion.
- Place a mesh metal screen in front of an open fireplace to prevent sparks from flying out.
- Don't burn plastics or other kinds of trash. Doing so can release toxic gases.
- Don't burn your Christmas tree in the fireplace. Sparks from the needles increase the risk of a chimney fire or a fire outside the house. Leave it on the curb instead or burn it in the backyard if municipal regulations allow this.
- Use dry wood. It will burn hotter than wet wood, which means it will release less creosote.
- Make sure ashes are cold before you put them in your trash can. Ashes that are even the slightest bit warm should be stored in a metal container that is kept away from anything flammable.
Keep Combustible Materials Far
Another common cause of house fires related to fireplaces and stoves is combustible items being left too close to the fire.
Setting an upholstered chair or a small mattress close to the fire can help you stay cozy and warm, but it's also dangerous, especially if you leave the room for a while.
A good rule of thumb is to keep all combustible items at least three feet from the fireplace or stove.
Basic Fire Safety Items Everyone Needs
Every home should have smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers, but that's especially so if you're heating the house by burning wood.
Smoke and CO detectors should be installed in the room where the fireplace or stove is. These should be tested at least once a month to make sure the batteries have enough juice in them to alert you of an emergency.
Keep an eye on the pressure gauges on your fire extinguishers. If they dip below the recommended pressure, have them refilled.
Keep the Outdoors Safe, Too
You're keeping fires burning indoors, but that doesn't mean the risks are contained within the four exterior walls of your house.
No matter how careful you are, an occasional spark will fly up to the top of the chimney. Those stray sparks can start a fire outside your house.
But there are some steps you can take to make sure those sparks burn out without starting a blaze.
- Clean your roof in the autumn, just before fire-burning season begins
- If any flammable matter, like leaves, land on the roof after this cleaning, clean again
- Keep any trees that are close to your house pruned back so that branches are not close to the chimney
- Install a chimney stack with spark arrester to prevent sparks from escaping (it will also keep animals from getting in)
Keep Your Insurance Costs Manageable
Heating your home by burning wood is inherently risky, and insurance companies know this. If your house is equipped with a fireplace, it will probably increase your home insurance premium. Your rate is likely to be even higher if you heat with a wood-burning stove (find out How Insurance Companies Calculate Your Home Insurance Premiums).
But that doesn't mean the only way to save on your insurance is to brick up your fireplace or tear out the stove. There a few things you can do to keep your rates down while still enjoying the comfort of a warm fire:
- Let your insurance agent or broker know if your home is close to a fire station or fire hydrant (this reduces the likelihood that a fire will have a chance to cause extensive damage to the house and you may get a better rate because of it)
- Installing a sprinkler system can reduce your insurance rate by as much as 20%
- Other safety measures like smoke and CO detectors and fire extinguishers might also help lower your insurance costs
- If you add the fireplace or stove after you've already been insured, let the insurance company know about these changes; otherwise, you might have your insurance claim denied if a fire breaks out
Standard homeowners insurance policies don't include coverage for damages involving a fireplace, but most insurance companies will let you add this to your policy.
Most insurers won't want to issue an insurance policy if the risk of a fire is too high. So, they might require your fireplace or stove to be inspected (and to remedy any problems that are discovered) before insuring your home. Some insurers will also require annual inspections.
Nothing beats the warmth and crackle of a wood fire. But it's not worth losing your home over.
If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, make sure you maintain them, use them safely, and that they don't void your insurance coverage.